Year of release: 2016 Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson.
I tried to avoid spoilers, but it’s really hard to discuss Silence without referencing the climactic act. However, I remained as vague as possible, but consider this a mild spoiler warning.
Ever since I read Shusaku Endo’s literary masterpiece Silence last January, one question that has haunted me is: what would I have done had I been in Rodrigues’ place at the story’s climax? It’s a question I still don’t know the answer to, and one which any attentive reader of the novel will be forced to grapple with for some time. One of the highest compliments I can pay to Scorsese’s film adaptation is that it treats that question with the same amount of gravitas as the book does, and it forces the viewer to wrestle with his or her answer to it in the same way.
After releasing The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, an Episcopalian bishop introduced Scorsese to the novel Silence, and shortly thereafter Scorsese fell in love with it, and he has wanted to adapt it into a film since then. The wait was worth it. Scorsese’s love and admiration of the source material shines through in every frame. There is hardly a sentence from the book which is not translated onto the screen. If there were an award for most painstakingly, laboriously faithful adaptation of a novel, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better candidate than Scorsese’s Silence, a few small changes aside.
When Jesuit missionaries Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) learn of a rumor that their beloved mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) apostatized in Nagasaki after three days of torture, they refuse to believe it. They implore their superior (Ciarán Hinds) to go to Japan and learn the truth themselves. Shortly thereafter, they embark on their mission to the land of the rising sun, where in their search for Ferreira they will minister to the covert Christian communities, evade the local authorities hunting for priests, and ultimately have their faith tested in way they cannot imagine.
That test of faith is primarily shown through Rodrigues’ perspective, and the letters he sends back to his superior ask one of the questions at the heart of Endo’s novel: where is God in the midst of terrible suffering and isolation? As Garfield narrates the letters via voiceover, it begins to appear he is not only addressing them to his superior, but also to God. Notably, as Peter T. Chattaway said at Arts & Faith, when Rodrigues finally hears the voice of Christ, it sounds very much like that voice is provided by Ciarán Hinds.
As I suppose should be expected, there have been Christian viewers balking at the outcome of Rodrigues’ test of faith in Silence. However, even though the film is slightly less ambiguous than the book regarding that outcome, it is anything but a celebration of Rodrigues’ act. While the test itself may seem trivial to a non-Christian – stepping on a fumie (an image of Christ to be trampled to prove one does not hold the image as sacred, and is therefore not Christian), the following consequences for a priest who did so would be that he was then be paraded as an example to make other Christians lose their faith.
Naturally, why any priest would denounce his faith, or anyone with strong core beliefs would renounce them, is a question that should challenge viewers of any religious background, forcing them to ask when and why they would abandon their principle, identifying beliefs, if ever. In the case of Silence, it must be noted that the Japanese inquisitors were exceptionally cruel in their method of torture. As Steven D. Greydanus observed in his review:
“‘Smite the shepherd,’ wrote the prophet Zechariah, ‘and the sheep will be scattered.’ Not only have the Japanese inquisitors learned this lesson, they’ve also learned an insidious inverse principle: To break the shepherd, smite the sheep.”
As the grand inquisitor Inoue (an outstanding Issei Ogata) casually mentions to Rodrigues, initially the Japanese officials made the mistake of torturing priests, but that only strengthened their resolve, since many of them envisioned a glorious martyr’s death. However, forcing the priests to watch helplessly as other Christians were tortured produced the desired results.
The desire to be a martyr is universal, and it affects people of all religious backgrounds, or even none at all, as a way to validate the righteousness of their cause. At one point a Japanese translator (Tadanobu Asano) assigned to assist Rodrigues remarks in Japanese that Rodrigues is as arrogant as all the other Jesuits, and he will fall like all of them did. That translator later states an even greater tragic irony regarding the priests who apostatize: they came to Japan for the fame and glory of missionary work, and they receive that fame as apostate priests.
Arrogance is certainly a flaw of Rodrigues’, but how much it plays into his final decision is debatable. What is not debatable is that regardless of the rightness or wrongness of Rodrigues’ climactic act, God is right there suffering alongside him.
As Rodrigues, Garfield conveys the moral certainty of the self-righteous when things are easy, and his shift to a tormented and confused soul in the midst of suffering is flawless as each confrontation with the inquisitors breaks his spirit a little more. As the Chief Inquisitor Inoue, Issei Ogata is perfect as he fluctuates between geniality and menace with a comic air of disliking the whole unnecessary but harmless procedure. Adam Driver captures the firm resolve and strictness of Garupe; and as Ferreira, Neeson’s portrayal of a tortured, conflicted soul is effortlessly conveyed through his facial expressions and halting line delivery.
Scorsese himself is at the top of his game. For the first half of the film, he creates an immersive Japanese landscape while demonstrating his affinity for the novel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is gorgeous and inviting, but at the same time slightly formidable and intimidating, much like the Japanese culture itself. The use of God point-of-view shots happens at crucial moments along Rodrigues’ journey, so the audience never forgets that God is not silent, even if He appears to be.
During the second half of the film, Scorsese’s prowess as a filmmaker is at the forefront. Each confrontation between Rodrigues and the Japanese is staged with increased tension, interjected with moments of dry humor and unexpected violence, which is as tragic and shocking as it should be. Scorsese may continue his habit of extending films beyond their natural ending point, but the final shot he crafts is so powerful, I’m easily inclined to forgive him for ten extra minutes of runtime.
In addition to the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering, there is another question which has haunted me ever since I first viewed Silence. That is: which character are we supposed to identify with? I believe the answer to that is not the protagonist.
At one point, Rodrigues is chided that he likes to compare his suffering to Jesus’ in the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are countless others who are suffering even more, and they don’t have the arrogance to compare themselves to Christ. It’s a damning line, and one that’s hard to forget, because as I said above, many Christians like to envision themselves as martyrs and see their own sufferings as making them Christ-like. While it’s unquestionably true that we can and should offer our sufferings to God, it’s also true that we make the same mistakes and trample on His mercy again and again. With that in mind, the character from Silence all of us probably have the most in common with is the dirty, cowardly everyman Kichijiro.
Played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, Kichijiro is a thorn in Fr. Rodrigues’ side, a Judas to his Christ. Throughout the film Rodrigues reflects on Christ’s words to Judas: “What you will do, do quickly.” However, as in the novel, Rodrigues begins to question whether that line was spoken in anger or in love. The answer in the film is hinted at earlier than in the novel, but the final affirmation of it occurs at the same powerful moment.
After wrestling with this film for three weeks, what I ultimately take away from it is that it’s a movie about love. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter shortly before his execution, “Finally, it’s not a matter of reason…finally, it’s a matter of love.” Regardless of whether one interprets Rodrigues’ final action as an act of love or an act of betrayal or both, what the film makes unmistakably clear is God’s love for us, that He was born into this world to demonstrate that love, and it never abandons us, even when we abandon Him as many times as Kichijiro apostatizes, which may to our limited understanding appear unreasonable.
To quote my friend Joshua Wilson:
“To identify with Kichijiro means to admit that we commit the same failings again and again. But Rodrigues scorned him and looked down on his weakness. Ultimately that was where he failed to identify with Christ, who comes to us in our weakness and only when he himself had been broken of that pride could he find where Jesus’ voice was in the silence.”
Pride certainly led to Rodrigues’ downfall, but that downfall was also his moment of salvation when he truly learned how to love a wretched, broken, ugly human being which so many of us inherently despise – as Rodrigues himself did for much of the film, when he begrudgingly heard Kichijiro’s repeated confessions.
For a film which is itself an act of love for Endo’s literary masterpiece on Scorsese’s part, not only did Silence shed new light for me on a powerful text, it also provided a stunning realization of Christ’s love for all of us, even when we abandon Him, a love we often only encounter in the silence.
Personal recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Spiritually ambiguous themes, non-graphic but intense scenes of torture and violence. MPAA Rating: R
Suggested Audience: Mature teens and up.
Year of release: 2016. Directed by J. A. Bayona. Starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Liam Neeson.
As someone who deeply admired Patrick Ness’ 2011 young adult novel A Monster Calls, let me start by getting one (pretty much my only) complaint out of the way. The character of Lily was cut from the film. She’s listed in the credits, which makes me think her scenes were filmed and then cut for time. If you have read the book, it’s easy to guess who she is, but in the film she’s just another student in the background. While the scenes with her aren’t crucial to the plot, in the book there is one moment between her and Connor right before the story’s climax that I found to be the story’s most heartbreakingly beautiful act of compassion toward someone suffering from grief. Needless to say, I was really disappointed it was not included in the film.
That out of the way, A Monster Calls is still really good. Lewis MacDougall impressively does the difficult job of capturing all the conflicting emotions of 12-year-old Connor who is deeply worried about his Mum’s cancer, resents the special treatment he gets because of “what he’s going through,” and doesn’t know how to face his fear and anger. As his Mum, Felicity Jones portrays the concern of a mother who wants to believe she will recover while trying to spare the details of her sickness from her son. Finally, Sigourney Weaver embodies Connor’s stern, no-nonsense Grandmother whose manner of grieving is incomprehensible to a 12-year-old boy.
And then, of course, there is the Monster voiced by Liam Neeson. A yew tree on the far edge of Connor and his Mum’s property, he awakes and comes walking for the seemingly simple task of telling Connor three stories and hearing a fourth from him. Needless to say, Connor thinks he has no time for “stupid stories” and especially despises the fairy-tale trappings of the Monster’s stories. However, as the Monster tells Connor, “Stories are not safe.” They don’t always tell us what we want to hear, and they can often reveal truths about ourselves and others that we don’t want to face. After that speech, it made me think Neeson was cast because he has voiced a lion who is also “not safe.” Either way, it was a great choice on the part of the filmmakers.
The fourth tale that Connor tells the Monster will be the nightmare that has terrorized him ever since his Mum took ill. In the book, we don’t learn what that nightmare is until Connor tells it at the end. The film, however, opens with that nightmare, and the tragic image of Connor letting his mother fall of a cliff as he’s unable to save her hangs over the film, setting up the deepest fear which plagues Connor. For the visual medium of film, it was a good choice to realize Connor’s turbulent emotions which the Monster has come to help him face.
However, Monsters, like stories, are also not safe. We quickly learn that the Monster’s stories are not just fantasies, but they have ramifications in the world as well. The beautiful watercolors which animate the Monster’s stories are brought into Connor’s life in a way which the book hints at, but the film makes explicit, another small change I appreciated. Neeson’s vocalizations range from concerned compassion to threatening rage, and they can change quickly and unpredictably as Monsters are wont to do. In some ways, the Monster reflects Connor’s own emotions which change from anger to sorrow in an instant. The two most devastating actions of Connor are met with unexpected reactions, and Weaver’s response to her grandson’s shocking behavior is one of deep hurt but also understanding.
Understanding from others can be one of the most difficult things to accept when we are grieving, whether it’s from teachers, parents, friends, or even school bullies. (That’s why the scene with Lily I mentioned in the first paragraph should have been included; it’s the first compassionate moment of understanding which Connor accepts, and it comes as a striking contrast right after the bully’s worst treatment of Connor.) Even without that scene, the most perfect example of understanding and empathy is Felicity Jones’ 100 years speech to her son when she acknowledges the pain and anger he feels, and that scene is every bit as eye-watering here as it was in the book.
Fantasy and stories have always been ways of learning, and in A Monster Calls Connor learns they often do not tell us what we want to hear, and they often do not have the happily-ever-after that we desire, but the messily-ever-after they prepare us for makes them dangerous and beautiful, like this film.
Personal recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: Painful themes of parental loss, some rather nasty school bullying, scenes of fantasy violence and peril, and a mildly risqué animation. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt.
Jackie is an incredible film in absolutely every possible sense of the word. I don’t deny the accuracy of any of the criticisms leveled against Jackie; it’s bizarrely and haphazardly edited, there are a glut of close-ups and eye-level point-of-view shots, the notable lack of establishing shots makes it impossible to fully appreciate where or when a scene is occurring, the shot reverse-shot editing becomes predictable quickly, which makes long takes stand out like a sore thumb. And yet, in spite of all that, or maybe because of it, Jackie is one of the most powerful explorations and portrayals of grief that I’ve seen all year. (I haven’t seen A Monster Calls yet.)
At the center of the film is Natalie Portman’s powerhouse performance as the grieving widow of JFK. And her elegance, attention to etiquette, and most importantly, her heartbreak come through in every scene. As the film cuts from the funeral, to an interview with the press, to breaking the news to her children, to recreated archival footage, to an exchange with a priest, to the assassination itself, often quite randomly, Portman is an anchoring presence. The nonlinear jumping from event to event heightens the feeling of grief as it underscores the lack of consistency and logic which people in a state of shock and devastation go through.
Surrounding and supporting Jackie are Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), whose performances fade into the background until Jackie needs them most and they emerge and stand forefront with her.
As Jackie deals with the process of grief, one moment she will be clutching her Catholic faith as a way to comfort her children, and a few scenes later she will be bitterly complaining to her priest (John Hurt) that God seems cruel. It’s a natural fluctuation for anyone who undergoes trauma, and Portman captures it effortlessly. The priest’s ultimate impartial response defies any conventional script writing logic, but like all the other unusual choices in the film, it works. He tells her even when it seems as if we would be better off dead, God gives us enough grace to get through each day, and even if it seems like too little, it will be enough.
That grace manifests itself in Jackie’s concern for her children, her attention to the details of her husband’s funeral, her love of history, the comfort from Bobby, and most notably in the musical Camelot which she and her husband famously loved. The film’s choice to focus on the title song from that musical and the glory of “one brief shining moment” adds even more poignancy to the film. Regardless of whether each viewer interprets that “brief shining moment” as the Kennedy legacy or simply the love of a wife and mother for her husband and kids, random details like that which comprise most of the film make Jackie absolutely stunning, especially for the way it overcomes and capitalizes on its sloppy, unconventional choices.
I confess, I have often grown tired of listening to baby boomers wax poetic about the Kennedys, but this raw portrayal of grief makes empathizing with them seem natural as it reveals broken human beings at the center of a tragedy who must maintain appearances for the press and cameras. Jackie’s calm public expressions of sorrow, contrasted with her cries of anguish in private, is a beautiful and sorrowful reminder of how messy grief is for everyone. Jackie wonders several times whether the “brief shining moment” she and her husband had will last, and that question, along with the dignity and grace with which she conducts herself, makes the sense of tragedy sting all the more for the viewer, especially when one contrasts her demeanor with recent events that left many Americans grieving.
As I said at the beginning, by every normal standard, this film is a mess and should be a disaster, but the rawness that permeates the film astonishingly works in its favor to make the exploration of grief all the more powerful, haunting, and devastating.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: A brief but explicit shot of JFK’s assassination and the aftermath, infrequent rough language, and fleeting discussion of infidelities. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
I like musicals. Actually, that’s not true. I love musicals. My top ten favorite films list includes Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Sweeney Todd, all of which I have seen more times than I can count. When Criterion released a box set of the complete Jacques Demy films, I purchased it as soon as I could. I enjoy and have defended the artistry of Rob Marshall’s adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods (his adaptation of Nine, however, is indefensible). I own the complete vocal scores for seven musicals and the vocal selections for countless others. I think Love Me Tonight and All That Jazz are both astonishing works of cinema as well as great musicals, and I routinely encourage everyone to watch the former (the latter being too graphic for a general endorsement). John Carney’s Once and Begin Again both made my top ten for their respective years, and Sing Street stands a decent chance of making my top ten this year. In middle school and high school I wrote two musicals, each over two hours in length (I wrote score, lyrics, and libretto – the musicals were not good, but it’s a testament to how much I love the art form). All that is to say: few things fill me with as much joy as a well made musical, and few things pain me as much as a musical gone wrong.
Naturally, when I heard about La La Land, I was ecstatic. An original musical produced on a lavish scale with extravagant set pieces and vibrant colors is something I am hard wired to love. I instantly caught the Jacques Demy influence in the trailer; Chazelle had proven his directorial chops with Whiplash, a film I respect even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, so I thought his skill would lead to a triumph here. The early raves were all encouraging, and even though the few naysayers convinced me to restrain my expectations, I was still convinced I was going to love La La Land.
I really, really didn’t.
From the first scene, the film failed to transport me the way that a good musical should. The opening set piece during rush hour on the LA freeway is extravagantly staged, fun to watch, and “Another Day of Sun” is an infectious tune that should bring a smile out of anyone, but the film’s focus during what should be a stunning production number is on Chazelle and his bag of directorial tricks. The entire sequence is filmed in one long take, and consequently, the focus is rarely on the dancers but on the camera and the odd positions it must adopt to move from performer to performer. During that number, I was frequently saying to myself, “Cut to a long distance shot so we can see the whole ensemble, or at least zoom out,” followed by, “Don’t violently whir the camera from person to person, cut to them, and time the cuts to match the musical phrases.” There were a few moments in the number when the music and the dance overcame the technical distractions, and the film briefly soared as it was meant to, but sadly, not for the entire scene.
In a nutshell, that is La La Land’s biggest problem. For every wonderful breathtaking moment of inspiring beauty (and there are a lot), there are one or two moments of clunky technical distractions grounding the film to earth.
After the opening set piece, a title card tells us the first segment is titled, “Winter.” We meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer who works as a barista to pay the bills, and then Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist with a strong rebellious streak. The segment is bookended by their two rough first meetings. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about them beyond their occupations and basic personalities. Neither one gets a song to describe their motivations for their dreams, and we are not given any reason that they should be together beyond this is a musical, and that’s traditionally what happens in a musical.
The next segment, “Spring,” is probably the best in the film, and the main reason for that is “A Lovely Night,” the meet cute song and dance for Mia and Sebastian. Gosling and Stone’s dancing is impressive and the framing against the LA sunset works beautifully. It’s the only moment in the film where everything comes together perfectly, due to the stars’ execution and to Chazelle allowing the camera to pull back and observe without intruding. Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is also at its best as their attitudes toward one another change from disdainful to reticent admiration.
“Summer” and “Fall” trace the standard trajectory of a musical romance, and Mia and Sebastian encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The film goes through the expected ups and downs, and it always stays watchable, but it never becomes transcendent.
As good as Stone and Gosling are (and they’re really good), there’s only so much they can do with two characters who are a compilation of every musical cliché. I am aware many great musicals have thinly sketched characters, but all of those musicals have something other than spectacular set pieces to drive the story forward. For instance, Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors have little personality beyond their massive lack of self esteem, but that plays directly into the villain’s manipulation which drives the story. The supporting characters in Company have little stage time, but they all have crucial song lyrics that make their characters more unique than Mia or Sebastian are here. The guy and girl in Once don’t even receive names, yet their songs develop their characters much more than the song lyrics or dance sequences in La La Land. (To be fair, “The Fools Who Dream” is a great song which adds a lot of depth to Mia’s character, but that’s undermined by the following scene.)
The most damning flaw throughout the majority of the film is Chazelle’s obnoxious desire to film all songs in one take. The result of such a choice is that he often has to move or position the camera awkwardly, dragging it along walls and missing moments of choreography. Personally, I’m blaming Tom Hooper for doing that in Les Miserables and Alejandro Iñarritu for convincing everyone that long takes are good in of themselves with Birdman.
However, the ending undoes any goodwill I was inclined to give the film. Admittedly, Justin Hurwitz’ score is excellent, Mandy Moore’s choreography is stunning, and the production design is gorgeous. None of that makes up for the sloppy, ham-fisted copying of vastly superior musical. To avoid spoilers I won’t say what musical (although I mentioned it in this review), but after La La Land reaches the conclusion of its story, Chazelle adds a gratuitous coda which has an identical outcome to the ending of said musical. The most offensive aspect is the way in which Chazelle tacks on the coda without setting it up and without the nuance or poignancy it has in the original film. If I hadn’t see that musical, I might not have minded La La Land concluding the same way it does, and I might have found La La Land’s conclusion bittersweet and touching. However, I’ve seen that vastly superior musical countless times, and I’m thinking about watching it right now, so La La Land’s coda struck me as borderline plagiarism.
Also, speaking of distracting copying of other musicals, one of the jazz set pieces used a theme copied directly from another great musical from the same director who made the musical referenced above. Finally, if the poorly copied coda weren’t enough, in the middle of it Chazelle inserts a dream sequence with references to every major musical which influenced La La Land. It’s redundant and only serves to drag out the ending as it screams out how self-aware it is.
Just like The Artist was a silent film for people who had never seen a silent film, La La Land is basically a musical for people who don’t particularly care for musicals. If you want to see La La Land, I’m not going to discourage you, but do yourself a favor and watch several Jacques Demy musicals first, most importantly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which soar head and heels over this film, and neither of which this film would exist without.
Personal Recommendation: C+
Content Advisory: An instance of profanity, implied premarital cohabitation, and a couple strong vulgarities. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Teens and up